Abraham Lincoln was America’s greatest president and our most profound presidential writer. Lincoln produced masterpieces of American political thought forged in the greatest crisis in our history. He was not a prophet or Ivy tower philosopher but a working politician, circumscribed by the need to bring other politicians and the nation along. At least one prominent historian judges Lincoln as passive; he was certainly cautious. He said he never had a political thought that did not spring from the Declaration of Independence. We’ll see what he meant and how what he expressed informs our understanding of the Declaration. The “new birth of freedom” Lincoln spoke of in the Gettysburg Address was a conditional expression, not an inevitable future. We can see that tentativeness now. In the Perpetuation Speech given as a young man in 1838 Lincoln seems to have foreseen how the nation could be vulnerable to a demagogue. He offers prescriptions for such a challenge. We’ll also see how for years he developed the thinking that brought him to his Second Inaugural, an exploration of America’s original sin. And we’ll see how Lincoln, a spiritual man but a religious skeptic, could produce the biblically lyrical Second Inaugural, which Frederick Douglass called “a sacred effort.” We will use Roy Basler, Abraham Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings.
Instructor Maurice T. Cunningham retired in 2021 as associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston where he taught The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln for over twenty years. He is the author most recently of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization and he continues research and writing on the effects of secret wealth on American politics. But, his favorite topic is Lincoln and he is overjoyed to return to reading Lincoln with others.
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